The United Nations says it's time to overturn the myth that pesticides can feed the world and come up with better, safer ways of producing our food.
For much of the past century, chemical companies and large-scale farmers have been telling consumers that pesticides are essential for keeping crop yields high, which, in turn, is necessary for feeding the world’s growing population. They’re partly right. These chemicals have been helpful in keeping up with unprecedented jumps in food demands, but their use has come at a steep cost that no longer appears to outweigh the benefits.
The United Nations wants this to change. In a newly released report, the UN takes a strong stance against the use of industrial agrochemicals, saying that they are not necessary for feeding the world. Continuing to use pesticides at the rate that the world currently does is, in fact, a betrayal of basic human rights because it can have “very detrimental consequences on the enjoyment of the right to food.”
“Increased food production has not succeeded in eliminating hunger worldwide. Reliance on hazardous pesticides is a short-term solution that undermines the right to adequate food and health for present and future generations.”
The UN’s report outlines the many ways in which pesticides have done the opposite.
First, there are the health concerns. The majority of victims live in developing countries, usually poor agricultural workers and their families and Indigenous populations whose communities and surrounding areas have been contaminated by nearby fields. The developing world is where 99 percent of the world’s 200,000 acute poisoning deaths occur each year. Scientists have found disturbing connections to birth defects, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, sterility, damaged motor skills, and neurological problems. Pesticides contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that damage male sperm.
Second, there are many environmental problems with sustained pesticide use. These chemicals persist in the soil, traveling up the food chain via a process called bioaccumulation. They degrade soil, which in turns increase the toxic burden of crops. Water runoff from fields poisons waterways, killing fish and other marine life. They damage important pollinators like butterflies, bees, and birds.
One of the report authors, Hilal Elver, told Civil Eats in an interview:
“The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading. It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”
The agrochemical industry argues that “80 percent of world harvests could be lost without ‘crop protection tools’” (a.k.a. pesticides), but, as Civil Eats points out, that “extreme” statement “fails to take into account a transition to safer alternatives.” Studies have shown that crop productivity and profitability can be maintained without the use of damaging chemicals.
The problem is, getting rid of pesticides requires a complete overhaul of the food production system. We need to move away from vast monocultures to diversified, smaller-scale production. You can support that transition by seeking out the local farmers in your area that do choose to farm that way.